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  • Apr 08 2010

    Sam P.’s Final Project (In Search of Wendell Slickman)

    Filed under: Uncategorized

    Here is my long-undelivered final project, a hybrid of Walt Whitman and Elvis Presley.  Please watch–it finally exists!

    And here is the brief paper commenting on the chaos I have tried to control:

    All These I Feel or Am:

    Whitman as Hip-Shaker, Self-Promoter, and Idol

    By reading Walt Whitman (the poet; the icon) through the images and sounds/musical attitudes associated with Elvis Presley, and creating the hybrid character Wendell Slickman, I originally intended to investigate the general cast of American celebrity.  Presley and Whitman, by my original thesis, could be used to trace a shared (and therefore repeated/repeatable) pattern of ascendancy in the American public eye, relying first on a provocative, highly sexualized presentation to garner early celebrity, and then on a mid-to-late-career campaign to sanitize that sexual image in favor of a more wholesome, continent-encompassing form of American iconicity.  The result would have been a relatively linear narrative, possible to tell in a video that spoke from beginning to end.

    I almost misled myself.  In actuality, Whitman and Presley evince both impulses, to sexually sensationalize and to self-sanctify, from the beginnings of their careers onward.  I also realized, and just as pressingly, that my goal was not to use Whitman and Presley as equal partners in a sweeping commentary on American cultural mores.  Instead, Presley serves as a sort of shorthand for the ICONIC AMERICAN, while his libido-flaunting musical medium allows me to reify the more dramatically performative aspects of “Song of Myself.”  The rock ‘n’ roll documentary, a standard venue for discussing rock musicians that comes fraught with its own stylistic baggage, further allows me a set of characters—performer, commentator, collaborators—that help dramatize what I take to be the central textual enterprise of “Song of Myself”: integrating vastly disparate types of narrative authority into an identifiably central voice, a single figure from which radiates both the kosmos and a set of aphoristic claims large enough to fit it.  Whitman essentially creates that core presence by constantly asserting it, thus presenting an illusion of unity that, if not for the force of his repetitive self-assertion, might easily break apart into disconnected (catalogic) observations, or splinter into disconnected speakers for every different voice or style he absorbs.

    Much like Elvis, but to an arguably lesser degree, Whitman stands among a rarefied class of American figures whose fame and cultural relevance derive in great part from heavily disseminated images of him, prompting many American cultural consumers to “assume they know Whitman the poet because they are familiar with some graphic image of him” (Allen 128).  That image most frequently follows the template laid out by William Douglas O’Connor, one of Whitman’s so-called disciples, in a pamphlet that gave Whitman the moniker that has long stood as an emblem of his literary/cultural latter-day sainthood.  “The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication,” published in 1867, valorizes Whitman repeatedly to the point of Christliness, proclaiming that Whitman’s “is the great goodness, the great chastity of spiritual strength and sanity” (2).  Bridging the apparent gulf between this image and Elvis’ venerated hip-shaking, O’Connor goes to great rhetorical lengths to characterize Whitman as “one of the greatest sons of men” at least nominally because the poet had just been dismissed from the Department of the Interior due to the supposed immorality of the 1860 Leaves of Grass (Blake 186).  Whitman’s unblinking acknowledgment of the “disorderly fleshy and sensual” (Library of America 50) constitutes the immorality discovered in his work.  But quite significantly, O’Connor defends that “fleshiness” as just the quality that dignifies Whitman’s writing.

    “The Good Gray Poet” calls up the “indecent passages” created by a litany of other writers, like Shakespeare, Dante, Plutarch, Virgil, Goethe, and Byron—those “among the demi-gods of human thought” (O’Connor 8)—and even invokes the Bible’s references to genitalia and sexual contact, in order to color Whitman’s supposed indecency with a golden holiness.  Though O’Connor’s efforts may seem like little more than good discipleship, his pamphlet’s broad and persistent influence has allowed even Whitman’s current readers to inherit an impression of the poet as something of an American apostle, while the pamphlet originating the “good gray poet” title sanctifies Whitman’s performance of sexuality, if not necessarily homoerotic desire, as an expression of his natural godliness.  This management of Whitman’s iconic status bears striking resemblance to the common pop-culture impulse to spiritualize eroticism and deify sexy performers, an impulse represented perhaps most popularly by Elvis fans’ desire to both lust after and create shrines to “the King,” untroubled by the possible contradiction between those two acts (Doss 76).

    However, Whitman’s followers cannot be held entirely responsible for their emphasis on the godliness of Whitman’s sexiness—not when the poet’s own writings champion that same conceptual transformation.  Starting with the 1855 version of “Song of Myself,” long before Whitman and his handlers had retroactively consolidated a better (“good-er?”), grayer Poet persona, the poet delivered this avowal: “Magnifying and applying come I, / Outbidding at the start the old cautious hucksters, / The most they offer for mankind and eternity less than a spirt of my own seminal wet, / Taking myself the exact dimensions of Jehovah and laying them away” (Library of America 73).  Whitman’s speaking persona here not only endows his sexuality with kosmic significance, linking his “seminal wet” with “offers” made to “mankind and eternity,” but also suggests by this stanza’s sequence that the same “seminal spirt” might equal the “dimensions of Jehovah.”  Sex and spirituality thus emanate in like proportion from the single poetic/priapic source.  Why? How?  In large part, because the persona says so.

    Whitman’s rhetorical practice in “Song of Myself” finds him both enacting and attempting to neutralize this tension between the flesh-man and the prophetic poet, taking on voices that switch unpredictably from the erotic to the elegiac, and from unrestrained sexuality to reverent self-commentary.  For example, Whitman lends the passage of “Song of Myself” most frequently described as an orgasm an aftershock denouement that remains in the kind of explicit but elevated hyper-phallicism that precedes climax: “Sprouts take and accumulate…. stand by the curb prolific and vital, / Landscapes projected masculine full-sized and golden.”  The next stanza, though a continuation of that thought, and itself including a relatively “graphic” image of the “obstetric forceps of the surgeon,” actually opens with a sudden turn to the philosophical and aphoristic, with the persona heavily reminding the reader that “all truths wait in all things” (56).  Though the two passages share a common grandness of scale, the first quite clearly emerges out of the “indecent” trajectory of foregoing pages, while the second might be found in any “wisdom literature.”  Presumably, the reader should look for no disjunction between the two statements, since the persona wishes him or her to find none.

    In fact, Whitman’s chief poetic project seems to be a muscular synthesis of disconnected vocal styles and subjects by virtue of his single, exceptional, even godlike personality.  Using a Bakhtinian analytical model to search “Song of Myself” for signs of textual dialogism, Dana Phillips argues that the poem’s long catalogues, often containing fragments of narrative like the “suicide” that “sprawls on the bloody floor of the bedroom” (Library of America 33) but preventing those fragments from taking on an intelligibly linear sequence, create “dissipating, centrifugal effects” (204).  By Phillips’ argument, Whitman’s speaker must constantly assert a “unified and unifying” identity, insisting on “his own lyric personhood” in order to “usurp… the utterances of others” (209).  True to its title, “Song of Myself” remains monologically “poetic” in Phillips’ reading of Bakhtin’s term; appropriately, Whitman’s persona admits “many long dumb voices” only with the condition that they come “through me” (Library of America 50).  In my video, I have sought to separate the single Whitman into at least two distinct voices: the demonstratively sexual performer (Wendell proper); and the eloquent, self-promoting “authority” who seems to study an outside specimen but actually specializes in himself (the rock scholargist—scholar/clergyman—who fabricates Wendell’s journal and self-penned eulogy).  By lending both characters long stretches of “Song of Myself,” I sought both to dramatize the division within Whitman’s self-claimed oneness, and to use Whitman’s text as a unifying presence that blurs the division between Wendell and his disciple(s).

    This separation of performative Whitman (perhaps best exemplified by the relatively nonsexual line “It is time to explain myself…. let us stand up” (Library of America 79)) and his self-commenting counterpart further enables me to visually represent the ways in which Whitman envisioned the populace that would deliver him iconic status.  Referring principally to the 1855 Leaves Preface’s Emersonian claim that “the proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it” (26), David Haven Blake contends that, because “the audience’s image was central to sustaining [Whitman’s] identity as the authentically American bard,” the poet “would use his poems to project a fictive celebrity until true admirers materialized” (63).  The “scholargist” in my video stands in both for Whitman’s disciples and for the poet’s willingness to act as his own greatest fan, thereby illustrating the great disparity between Whitman’s own sense of himself as the fulcrum on which his nation turns, and the reality of American cultural politics that kept his “immoral” brand of aesthetic self-affirmation from receiving the limitless audience he had imagined.  By insisting so stridently that these divided selves must be identified with the persona as a single generative being, Whitman thus accompanies his countless cries for camaraderie with the sense that he carries the burden of a colossal loneliness equal to his self-proclaimed singularity.

    Works Cited

    Allen, Gay Wilson.  “The Iconography of Walt Whitman.”  The Artistic Legacy of Walt Whitman: A Tribute to Gay Wilson Allen.  Ed.    Edwin Haviland Miller.  New York: New York University Press, 1970.  127-152.  Print.

    Blake, David Haven.  Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.  Print.

    Doss, Erika.  Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith & Image.  Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1999.  Print.

    O’Connor, William Douglas.  “The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication.”  The Walt Whitman Archive.  Ed. Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price.  Web.  24 November 2009.

    Phillips, Dana.  “Whitman and Genre: The Dialogic in ‘Song of Myself.’”  Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”  Ed. Harold Bloom.  Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.  195-221.  Print.

    Whitman, Walt.  Poetry and Prose.  Ed. Justin Kaplan.  New York: Library of America, 1996.  Print.


    Finally, I have prepared a brief guide to the movie’s references/background, in order of appearance:

    1. Opening graveyard scene: shot in and around my family’s plot at Elmwood Cemetery in Norfolk, Virginia.  Ellwood and Lucy Lee, whose stone is visible in the title shot, were/are my great-great-grandparents.

    2. “1935-1992”: Combines Presley’s birth-date with Whitman’s century-removed year of passing.

    3. Performance 1: “I’m Just a Lonely Guy,” released in 1955 on Specialty Records as the B-side to “Tutti Frutti.”  All performances shot in this basement are loosely modeled after the sit-down, girls-sitting-around presentation seen during Elvis’ “1968 Comeback” television performances (for example, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1OLU5IsJ7g).

    4. Scholargist: “I have heard what the talkers were talking…. the talk of the beginning and the end… Always the procreant urge of the world” (Library of America 28).

    5. Performance 2: “That’s All Right, Mama,” written by Arthur Crudup and released as Elvis’ first single in 1954 on Sun Records.  Contains a verse based on Whitman’s line “Press close barebosomed night!” (47).

    6. Shacky Mansionette: extremely loose approximation of Sam Phillips, owner of and producer for Sun (in this case, Slam) Records.

    7.  Shacky: “Bootsoles” (88).

    8. End of “That’s All Right”: “YAWP” (87).

    9. Performance 3: “One Night (of Sin),” written by Dave Bartholomew, Pearl King, and Anita Steiman and released by Elvis in 1958 on RCA.  Elvis tamed the original version, which was preoccupied with a night of sexual profligacy that the lyrics claim would “make the earth stand still,” and substituted these suggestive themes with a banal proposition of faithful monogamy (“One night with you / is what I’m now praying for / The things we two could plan / would make my dreams come true”).  Quite notably, Elvis returned to the original first verse in his ’68 “Comeback” performance of “One Night,” choosing to re-sexualize a song that he and his handlers had long before sanitized. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plQIs3zoDHE for the 1968 version.)

    10.  Scholargist: “They do not know how immortal, but I know” (33), with “eternal” replacing “immortal.”

    11.  “”: “I might not tell everybody but I will tell you” (45).

    12.  “”: Wendell as “the [singer] of the body… and of the soul” (46).

    13.  “”: Wendell Slickman, “one of the roughs, a “kosm[ic]” conman (50).

    14.  Performance 4: “Milk Cow Blues Boogie,” written by Kokomo Arnold and released by Presley in 1954 on Sun Records.  All performances shot in this close-framed, hair-in-bun style refer to Elvis’ famous waist-up, shoulder-shaking performance of “Heartbreak Hotel” filmed in 1956 (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKYf8LGRyHw).

    15.  Scholargist: “What is commonest and cheapest and nearest and easiest is” him (38).

    16.  Wendell: “Very well, then (I contradict myself)” (87).

    17.  Scholargist: “Disorderly fleshy and sensual” (50).

    18.  “”: “Gathering and showing more always and with velocity” (58).

    19.  Performance 5: “Baby Let’s Play House,” written by Arthur Gunter and released by Elvis in 1954 on Sun Records.

    20.  Scholargist: “I do not decline to be the [singer] of wickedness… Evil propels me and the reform of evil propels me” (48).

    21.  “”: “With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds” (52).

    22.  Performance 5: “Heartbreak Hotel,” written by Mae Boren Axton, Thomas Durden, and Presley, and released on RCA in 1956.  This performance relies on a stanza from “Song of Myself”: “There was never any more inception than there is now, / Nor any more youth or age than there is now; / And will never be any more perfection than there is now, / Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now” (28).

    23.  Scholargist: “O Christ!  My fit is mastering me!” (69).

    24.   “”: “I do not despise you priests; / My faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths” (77).

    25.  Performance 6: “Trying to Get to You,” written by Rose Marie McCoy and released by Elvis first as a 1955 Sun single, and then as a track on his first RCA album, Elvis Presley.  One of the few early Elvis songs to explicitly describe the continental grandness of Whitman’s poetry (the song begins “I’ve been traveling over mountains”), “Trying” begins in this version with a characteristically sweeping self-assertion by Whitman’s speaker: “I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washed babe…. and am not contained between my hat and boots” (32), “and can never be shaken away” (33).

    26.  Scholargist: “All these I feel or am” (65).

    27.  “”: “These are the thoughts of men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me… If they are not the riddle or the untying of the riddle… If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing” (43).

    28.  “”: “You shall no longer take things at second or third hand” (28).

    29.  Performance 7: “Queen Jane Approximately,” written Bob Dylan and appearing on his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited on Columbia Records.  This performance’s first verse includes a paraphrased form of Whitman’s “lunatic… carried at last to the asylum a confirmed case,” restructured to fit the mood and rhyme scheme of Dylan’s song:

    When the lunatic carried from the foot of his mother’s mattress

    Is waiting for her in a home for the insane,

    And he sends all of his poems to the wrong address,

    Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?

    The chorus is also extended to include another Whitman line:

    Won’t you come see me, long-hair?

    “I am the man, I suffered, I was there” (64).

    30.  Scholargist: “There is that in [this]…. I do not know what it is…. but I know it is in [this]” (86)

    31.  “”, paraphrased: “Perhaps I might tell you more… OUTLINES! …. It is not chaos or death…. it is form and union and plan…. it is eternal life…. it is happiness” (87).

    32.  Eulogy: a patchwork of moments in “Song of Myself” I find especially elegiac, even self-eulogizing.

    “My final merit I refuse you… I refuse putting from me the best I am” (53).  “Logic and sermons never convince, / The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul” (56).  “Ever myself and my neighbors, refreshing and wicked and real, / Ever the old inexplicable query… ever the sobbing liquid of life, / Ever the bandage under the chin…. ever the tressels of death” (75).  “And as to you corpse I think you are good manure, but that does not offend me” (86).  I remember…. I resume the overstaid fraction, / The grave of rock multiplies what has been confided to it…. or to any graves, / The corpses rise…. The gashes heal…. the fastenings roll away” (71).  “The last scud of the day holds back for me, / It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadowed wilds, / It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk. / I depart as air…. I shake my white locks at the runaway sun, / I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags” (87-88).  “By my life-lumps!  becoming already a creator! / Putting myself here and now to the ambushed womb of the shadows!” (75).

    33.  Performance 8: “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” written by Tom Waits and placed at the end of his 1985 album Rain Dogs (Island Records).  Because of its lyrical intensity, articulated in bodily images that are at once familiar and unfamiliarly lurching (“My head is spinning ‘round, / My heart is in my shoes”), and because of the way in which the chorus manages to feel both self-assured and remarkably lonely (“Anywhere I lay my head, boys, / That’s where I’ll call my home”), I have long found this one of the most Whitmanic songs in C(c)reation.  In order to more directly call out the funereal quality of the song, I aligned “Anywhere” with part of “Peace in the Valley,” the highly recognizable gospel song by Thomas Dorsey that Elvis performed on the Ed Sullivan show in 1957 (see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNE9wsh8ld4).

    As stated in the video’s credits, all of these arrangements (including the vocal parts for the last scene), performances, and lyrical alterations were created specifically for “In Search of Wendell Slickman.”

    Nov 17 2009

    Where the Other Sam Found Walt Whitman

    Filed under: Uncategorized

    The “Bloody Angle” is the name given to a piece of ground at the Spotsylvania Courthouse Battlefield on which, in May 1864, some of the war’s most traumatizing hand-to-hand and muzzle-to-muzzle fighting took place.  Whitman would certainly have encountered a number of the men damaged at this site.

    Nov 15 2009

    Sam P. for Nov. 17

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    As a rather more-than-avid Bob Dylan listener (I can’t compare to my roommate, who has practically covered his half of the room with good ole Robert Zimmerman’s face), I was pleased though unsurprised to see Andrew Higgins reference Dylan in his essay on Whitman’s “Reception and Legacy.”  I’ve been hearing Dylan in Whitman all along, or, more accurately, I’ve been reading the clear signs of Dylan’s Whitmanian inheritance. 

    The cultural context in which Higgins invokes Dylan, however, obliges me to confront the ways in which Whitman’s influence has passed the same problem of reductively politicized interpretation from the graybeard poet to followers like Dylan, who have been similarly confined to the role of artist-as-political-spokesman.  Higgins asserts that Whitman’s legacy consists of the “dramatic actions of his admirers,” by which his legacy “becomes a market, a signifier, used by his admirers, each claiming, to greater or lesser degrees, understanding of a real or an ideal Walt Whitman” (439).  One of the principal shapes Whitman has taken in this “market’s” American branch is that of “‘Father Walt,’ the spirit of the American worker,” a role broadened to “the nationalist Whitman, the Whitman of the populist poets” (447).  Carl Sandburg, a chief proponent of that “populist tradition” that Higgins calls a “poetic dead end,” in turn serves as a key point in the trajectory Higgins traces from Whitman to the mid-century explosion of folk revivalism, which borrows heavily from “Whitman’s vision of the working-class hero” (448).  Of course, that folk movement developed an increasing association with political activism, leaning heavily on “protest songs” as tools of various “left-wing” (antiwar, civil rights, etc.) political movements. 

    Placing Dylan in this lineage, however, fascinatingly begs the question of how intrinsically activist Whitman’s poetic example might be.  Anyone familiar with Dylan’s career trajectory through the 1960s will know that, despite achieving great fame as the folk movement’s virtual figurehead by writing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and other songs that swiftly became anthems for protest, Dylan effected a stylistic shift into denser, less identifiably political lyrics that were accompanied by brash rock & roll instrumentation that bore little resemblance to the supposedly “purer” acoustic folk sound.  The folk community called this a betrayal, and Dylan correspondingly dismissed “folk music” as incompatible with his interests. 

    However, in spite of the too-tidy “before-and-after” distinction that suggests Dylan’s break from the “folk revival” might have meant an estrangement from his Whitmanian roots, even his pre-split songs bear pervasive signs of a Whitmanian influence that reached beyond the “working class,” “populist” identity that Higgins attributes to him, and which so commonly bolstered the “folk movement’s” own “topically” politicized pursuits.  Consider “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” one of the songs most hungrily grabbed up as ripe protest material:


    The song’s constant emphasis on parallel constructions (“Where have you been,” “What did you see;” “I saw, I saw,” etc.), and its sense of the singer as a prophet anticipating the “hard rain” that will envelop large and small, beautiful and hideous, “dozen dead oceans” and “clown that cried in the alley” alike, recalls nothing if not the long catalogues and encompassing sensibility of “Song of Myself.”  It’s pervaded with a kind of cosmic political sensibility, an immense American guilt, that only occasionally states the politically obvious (“I met a white man who walked a black dog”), usually transmuting common attitudes or experiences, like misogyny and repressed sexuality, into apocalyptic, even somewhat surreal imagery (“I met a young woman whose body was burning”).  However, just as Higgins notes that Horace Traubel and other Whitman biographers attempted to cast the poet as a “semidivine prophet of socialism” (442), Dylan’s contemporaries often construed “Hard Rain” as a protest against impending nuclear disaster because the song’s first performances roughly coincided with the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Then again, showing a reticence to get tied to a particular “cause,” “movement,” or stable public identity that echoes Higgins’ assertion that “Whitman somewhat resisted both the effort to enlist him in socialism and to beatify him” (442), Dylan dismissed these efforts to interpret the song so topically whenever possible, insisting that “it’s not an atomic rain, it’s just a hard rain.  It isn’t the fallout rain.  I mean some end that’s just gotta happen…”

    By appealing to a broader form of address than that available through antiwar (or any other particular) protest, Dylan renders his work both more truly Whitmanian and less compatible with a folk culture that looked to him for singer-activism.  Of course, just as Whitman recruited and reconfigured his poetry as a vehicle for pro-war enjoinders like “Beat! Beat! Drums!”, Dylan often appeared and performed at unambiguously political events, the 1963 civil rights March on Washington not least among them.  But “Hard Rain” and other ostensibly “anthemic” “folk” songs, like Whitman’s Drum-Taps, reach beyond immediate causes and events in pursuit of, say, greater immensities in their art.  Dylan’s alignment with the “kosmos” Whitman suggests his own attempt to reach beyond the “populist dead end” that neither poet nor singer ever obeyed, and illustrates the way in which Whitmanian influence, when genuinely and thoroughly integrated into an artist’s body of work, allows that work the expansiveness that Whitman intended for his own.

    Nov 08 2009

    Sam P. for Nov. 10

    Filed under: Uncategorized

    At the end of Daniel Longaker’s “The Last Sickness and the Death of Walt Whitman,” I somehow felt cheated by the conclusions Longaker draws regarding the connection between Whitman’s poetic characterization of mortality and the poet’s actual experience of death.  Whitman’s “indomitable will,” Longaker argues, would not have been “exercised in a struggle against the inevitable. 

              Perhaps, if he willed at all, it was to die sooner.  But bodily pangs and tortures seemed not to perturb him; he lived out his last days as he had lived his last forty years, with senses alert and keen and emotions under perfect control.  His mind was bent on higher things than those passing about his inert and worn-out body… This much, at least, is certain, that at the very end, as all through his life, the act of dying had no terrors for him who had passed ‘death with the dying and birth with the new-washed babe.’ (107-8)

     Longaker’s inclusion of a quote from “Song of Myself,” and his assertion that Whitman lived his final few months in the same manner that he had the “last forty years” (that is, since 1852), position Whitman within a framework for thinking about death that derives almost exclusively from Whitman’s 1850s-era poetry.  In particular, Longaker’s judgment of Whitman’s death-bed outlook seems to mirror “Song of Myself’s” championing of the “procreant urge of the world,” and the speaker’s sense in that poem that “there is really no death, / And if ever there was it led forward life… And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier” (194).  According to Longaker, Whitman seems to complacently accept death, particularly because he remains preoccupied with “higher things” that must assumedly exist in a position beyond death’s grip.

                However, the cycle Whispers of Heavenly Death compellingly undercuts this perhaps over-simplified characterization of Whitman’s perspective on mortality.  As his largest-scale consideration of death as a subject, Whispers significantly appears in the 1871 edition of Leaves of Grass, when the Civil War’s immense human cost still weighed implacably on the country, and when Whitman’s advancing years, passing 50, began to align with the premature aging exacted by the war.  Thus death itself, not the world’s “procreant urge,” looms in Whispers as the power binding all experience, with the speaker of the poem “Assurances” acknowledging that “I do not think Life provides for all and for Time and Space, / but I believe Heavenly Death provides for all” (563).  If there ever was life, in this vision, it led forward death.  (Rather crucially, “Assurances” appears in the 1856 Leaves as the drastically different “Faith Poem.” The life-death dichotomy reversal does not appear in the earlier version at all.)

                In line with that inverted restructuring of the relationship between life and death, Whitman infuses Whispers with a current of uncertainty about death that seems entirely alien to the feeling in “Song of Myself” that dying might be “lucky.”  Both “Thought” (one of a number of poems Whitman gave this name) and “Yet, Yet, Ye Downcast Hours” see Whitman’s speaker respond to the possibility that “Matter is conqueror—matter, triumphant only, continues onward” (562), that only a person’s decomposed and diffused corpse can continue to exist after death.

                Thus despite Longaker’s claim that Whitman thought only of “higher things than those passing about his inert and worn-out body” during his last days, Whitman himself encodes within Whispers his awareness of how definitive a physical life might be.  This realization actually helps us to make sense of what Longaker otherwise sees as entirely aberrant behavior: Whitman’s “deluded” avowal that he might yet “beat those doctors yet” and stay alive, and the strikingly ruthful tone of his observation that “Some of these fine mornings I shall be slipping away from you forever” (102).  Longaker’s attempt to hold up Whitman’s death as consistent with the poet’s writings on mortality crucially elides the uncertainty about, and corresponding fear of, death that appears both in Whitman’s behavior and throughout his Whispers, simplifying the poet’s death when it deserves a treatment as complex and contradictory as his poetry.

    Oct 31 2009

    Sam P. for Nov. 3

    Filed under: Uncategorized

    I will now own up to how profoundly my reading of the 1855 “Song of Myself” freaked me out.

                I doubt that I’m alone in that reaction.  The 1891-92 “Death-Bed” edition of Leaves of Grass seems to easily surpass other versions in terms of current availability.  Together with the fact that the “Death-Bed” contains the last revisions Whitman was able to effect before his death, the “Death-Bed’s” prevailing presence has imparted to the text, at least to me, something of the character of an immutable literary monument.  Given the compact recognizability of the opening of “Song of Myself,” this poem evinces this quality even more pronouncedly, making it rather like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in terms of its succinct iconicity.  Every ounce of that document’s language rings with a kind of engraved familiarity, a sense that the combined sounds—in their exact rhythmic sequence—deepen the meaning of the words themselves.  We feel ever more strongly that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” precisely because that sentence, and the semi-musical feeling of reciting it, will never perish from our American collective memory.  That is the text; how could there be any other?

                Imagine, then, that you read an earlier draft of Lincoln’s speech that opened with the phrase “Eighty-seven years ago.”  Only so dramatic a change can illustrate how jarred I was when reading the first stanza of the 1855 “Song of Myself”:

     I celebrate myself,

    And what I assume you shall assume,

    For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. (27)

     Of course, the first line reads “I celebrate myself, and sing myself” in the 1891-92 Leaves (though the online Walt Whitman Archive reveals that this opening first appeared in the 1881 edition).  Even if I assume incorrectly that the “Death-Bed” edition has long reigned as the form most widely circulated and readily available, I have at least Whitman’s own assertion, in the notice that opens the 1891 version, that he “prefer[s] and recommend[s] this present one, complete, for future printing, if there should be any” (148).  If Whitman thereby guaranteed that this would stand as the “authoritative” Leaves, as Amanda Gailey notes in her “Publishing History” of the collection, my own experience with the “Song’s” first stanza has ratified this definitiveness.

                Why should it matter, though, that this final form of the poem’s opening stands so strongly in my memory, or my country’s?  I think the answer lies in the way in which the short line “I celebrate myself” forces me to confront my internal construction of Whitman as a “literary personality,” a figure almost deified in our willingness to use certain texts, like the opening of the “Song,” as talismans testifying to his greatness.  Even though we have traveled to D.C. and faced the sheer material proof that Whitman lived, wore glasses, had hair, etc. (I really wish, perversely enough, that those strands had come right out of his armpit), my earlier astonishment at seeing “I celebrate myself” in isolation, and my relief at now seeing it “completed” by its partner phrase, make me realize how strongly the “Great American” legacy of Whitman has taken hold of me.  Can I ever really “love the man personally”—or, like Whitman’s from-afar infatuation with Lincoln, do I just have to wish I could?

    Not just a monument of words

    Not just a monument of words

    (Image from http://www.mallowandgogo.com/gallery/slideshow.php?set_albumName=album01)

    Oct 25 2009

    Sam P. for Oct. 27

    Filed under: Uncategorized

    Song of the Bleeding Throat

               Fitting, how the shocking and premature death of the President, like the untimely demise that had just come to hundreds of thousands of young Americans before him, should provoke Whitman to confirm the absolute naturalness of death, its beauty and inevitability.  In “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” he dramatizes this process of reclaiming death from its seemingly undue wartime circumstances by establishing a dichotomy of “the knowledge of death” and “the thought of” it (464), presenting the conflict between Whitman’s old, sublimely encompassing sense that “to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier” (32) and his more concrete awareness of how much suffering the war’s deaths have caused.  The clanging convergence of these two attitudes crucially undercuts the joyous “carol of death” at “When Lilacs’” climax (464), indicating the profound limits of such cathartic death-celebration.

                In fact, Whitman frequently slams home the morbidity in moments calculated to subvert the poem’s sweeping elegiac tone, inflicting a kind of figurative violence on the reader in order to confront him/her with death’s inescapability.  One single-stanza section renders this tension with terrifying clarity:



             Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,

             Amid lanes and through old woods, where lately the  

                  violets peep’d from the ground, spotting the gray debris,

             Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes, passing

                  the endless grass,

             Passing the yellow-spear’d wheat, every grain from its

                 shroud in the dark-brown fields uprisen,

             Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the


             Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,

             Night and day journeys a coffin. (460)


    The broad reach of Whitman’s vision of the physical America, fraught with resurrection’s promise as “every grain” emerges “from its shroud,” crashes down at the stanza’s end in a death without obvious corresponding rebirth, the image of a “corpse” that stifles and mocks the speaker’s vaulting naturalistic outlook.  Thus Whitman activates the symbolic healing of the natural American world, a convenient and familiar trope in the context of a nation whose “soils” themselves must reunite, while forcing that symbolic material to share narrative space with the ugly fact of Lincoln’s body, indicating the distance between the nation’s figurative reunion and the ineradicable physical damage that reunion has required. 

                 Whitman conveys a similarly double-edged understanding of death in the thrush’s exultant “carol of death,” or at least the version of the song recited by “the voice of [the speaker’s] spirit” (464).  In terms that uncannily recall the poem’s fifth section, the song calls out to “lovely and soothing death”: “From me to thee glad serenades, / …And the sights of the open landscape and the high-spread sky are fitting, / And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night” (465).  The “carol’s” elevated tone and enveloping scope seem, for a brief moment, to definitively “answer” the problem death poses in the wake of the war, countering misery with a saturating joy. 

               However, Whitman immediately complicates this relief by again turning to corpses, the physical artifacts of the war’s misery.  The poem’s speaker describes the “battle-corpses” and “white skeletons” he has seen during the war, observing that “the slain soldiers… suffer’d not,” while “The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d, / And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d, / And the armies that remain’d suffer’d” (466).  Just as Lincoln’s body troubles the symbolic natural renewal through which it passes on its way to be buried, the troops’ corpses tacitly question the extent to which death can be “lovely and soothing,” and still inflict so much misery on those left living.  Again Whitman’s sense of death as a cold reality (for the living) squeezes in alongside his treatment of death’s broader, more abstract significance, obliging the reader to consider Lincoln’s death as a specific physical fact before lifting the president up into the position of, in Whitman’s phrase, America’s “first great Martyr Chief” (1071).

    Oct 20 2009

    Sam P. for Material Culture Museum: Hardtack and Other Indelicacies

    Filed under: Uncategorized

    The infamous rock-bread
    The infamous rock-bread

    (via http://www.flickr.com/photos/houseofsims/1061813184/)

    Hardtack, most often described as a bland, rock-solid, 3×3” piece of flour-and-water “bread,” technically should never have gained the infamy it did.  Its original function in Civil War armies was that of dietary filler, used to supplement proteins and what vegetables became available (Madden 137).  However, other ration components often gave out, leaving hardtack or its Confederate counterpart, the equally forbidding cornmeal biscuit, the unfortunate cornerstone of a soldier’s diet.  This largely resulted from both the Federal and the Confederate governments’ assumption that the war would be decided on ground close enough to Union-governed cities to easily transport food, and would end so quickly that neither Union storehouses nor the large tracts of farm in the Confederacy would sag too significantly under the effort (127).

                These assumptions proved incorrect, of course, and by the war’s second year hardtack and other portable but gravely innutritious foods had become chief army ration components.  On days when rations were available, a Civil War soldier could have expected about a pound of salted meat, twelve ounces of hard bread, small portions of beans, rice or dried vegetables, and even smaller provisions of coffee, vinegar and salt.  An August 1861 directive from the U.S. Congress to provide fresh meats and potatoes “when practicable” revealingly suggests how little either army could usually manage to exceed or even meet this ration (Nelson and Sheriff 215).  Because of the great difficulty of shipping fresh foods to camp areas out of the reach of rail lines, soldiers most often encountered meat that in a heavily “cured” form, filled with so much preservative salt that it was virtually unchewable and needed to be soaked before eating (Madden 135).  Vegetables were similarly subjected to a similar preservative dehydration process, called “desiccation,” then shaped into roughly one-ounce blocks that were, by all accounts, a repulsive dietary necessity (137).


    Cooking in camp: the scene suggests how desolate a soldier's dietary life could be.
    Cooking in camp: the scene suggests how desolate a soldier’s dietary life could be

    (from http://pro.corbis.com/Enlargement/Enlargement.aspx?id=NA011165&ext=1)

    Even these relatively imperishable items frequently ran out or turned rotten, leaving hardtack/cornmeal and beans as the most common foods available on many mornings.  Unsurprisingly, their health suffered as a result.  Hardtack’s plain starch might have filled the empty bottoms of soldiers’ stomachs, but its obvious lack of fats, vitamins and other essential nutrients left Union and Confederate men alike with profound dietary gaps.  Also, hardtack often arrived filled with weevils and maggots, an unsanitary condition that only kept men from eating it in the most severe infestations (Madden 138).  Soldiers in both armies attempted to improve their hard breads’ taste when possible, as in the Union example of “skillygalee,” comprised of hardtack soaked in cold water and browned in small amounts of pork fat.  These enhancements remained only occasionally possible, however, leaving the bread as tasteless and nutritionally hollow as ever (Wiley 237).  Although beans, when baked in a kettle, provided a comparative wealth of both protein and carbohydrates, soldiers’ common tendency to eat these beans undercooked caused them to ingest a toxin, phytohaemagglutinin, that caused severe gastric unrest and diarrhea.  Such toxins, combined with infectious bacteria from whatever meat soldiers could sometimes scrounge, damaged the lower intestines from repeated illness, often with fatal results (Nelson and Sheriff 216).  The tiny portions in which men often received their hardtack, beans, cornmeal, etc. further plagued the armies with chronic hunger that made soldiers’ bodies more vulnerable to non-dietary illnesses (Madden 147).

                We should hardly be surprised, then, that Civil War hospitals were filled with men suffering these infections and deficiencies alongside their wounded or otherwise diseased comrades.  In his daily hospital visits, Whitman tried to fill some of these inadequacies with his gifts of fruit, jams, etc.  However, soldiers in camp struggled to supplement their hardtack-and-bean diets without such friendly civilian aid.  When payday came, or if they came from more affluent families, men of both armies would fill this need via the camp sutler, a civilian entrepreneur who would sell cheese, small, canned meats and other relative delicacies—for exorbitant prices (Wiley 232).  Soldiers often voiced their resentment of the sutlers’ exploitive practices, sometimes even inflicting violence on the ware-peddlers out of frustration, but the abject paltriness of their thin rations saw them continually pay for whatever they could afford (Madden 152).  These conditions instilled in soldiers “the common knowledge that wealthier soldiers tended to outlive poorer ones,” since the dietary fortification provided by sutlers’ goods often determined a man’s survival (Nelson and Sheriff 217). 

    Filling dietary holes at the sutler's tent
    Filling dietary holes at the sutler’s tent

    (from http://www.1stvacav.com/pierce-creek/)

                Rather than buying their way into this better dietary health, though, Union and Confederate men regularly commandeered the food supply of civilian populations near their camp or operating area.  Thus the hunger of armies operating on hardtack and little else radiated out to worsen the hunger of civilians from whom the soldiers stole while out “foraging.”  This civilian impact occurred far more dramatically in the South, of course, since most major land campaigns outside of Gettysburg and Antietam took place within Confederate states.  Often such food appropriation received official sanction, especially from Union leaders who were navigating their troops through enemy territory and had little access to large-scale supply routes (Wiley 234).  A particularly clear example of this would be the wholesale consumption of Georgia’s livestock and produce during Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s famed “March to the Sea.”  However, soldiers desperate for nutrition stole just as often without that approval from above, sometimes risking even capital punishment to supplement their diets (Madden 156).  Although the adversarial relationship between Union troops and Southern civilians gave this “forage”-theft a political dimension, Confederate men stole roughly as much and as frequently from the Southern homes they passed while out on campaigns.  A Vermont soldier related his encounter with a beleaguered Southerner who stated this experience quite plainly:  “[W]e can hardly live between the two armies” (Madden 155).  This erasure of North-South identity in the face of enveloping hunger illustrates how deeply the limited availability of rations, and the nutritionally insubstantial nature of those rations, affected soldiers’ conceptions of the war.  Hardtack thus lingers on as a vital symbol of Civil War hardship because the dissatisfaction caused by that type of bland, rock-like bread forced Union and Confederate men to measure themselves against what they were willing to do to eat better—and live.


    Works Cited

     Madden, David, ed.  Beyond the Battlefield: The Ordinary Life and Extraordinary Times of the

                Civil War Soldier.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

     Nelson, Scott, and Carol Sheriff.  A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America’s Civil

                War, 1854-1877.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

     Wiley, Bell Irvin.  The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union.  Baton Rouge:

                Louisiana State University Press, 2008.

    Oct 17 2009

    Sam P. for Oct. 20

    Filed under: Uncategorized

    Yet another moment in which knowledge of a writer’s worldview threatens to cinch in the meaning of his/her work.  Morris’ chapter “The Great Army of the Sick” introduces another crucial note of exclusiveness to Whitman’s ostensibly wide-open call for American camaraderie: he may only be talking to white people.

                In a blog earlier this semester (for Sept. 22), I wrote of how Bigger, the protagonist of Richard Wright’s Native Son, pursues the “sense of wholeness” (Wright 240) he has been deprived as an African American male in 1930s Chicago, and of how Whitman’s enjoinder to “claim your own at any hazard” (from “Leaves of Grass (part 4),” 1867 edition of Leaves) assumes a white position of privilege from which Bigger’s “wholeness” might be claimed.  However, I still assumed that Whitman, with his driving postwar impulse to see his halved nation cohere, was really hoping for, as I put it, “a highly nationalized, comparatively race-leveling ‘collective identity’ that empowers and protects all Americans non-dichotomously (that is, without distinguishing South/North, white/black, etc.).”

                Morris suggests that these two threads, white privilege and the forging of an American identity, might not be separate or at all “contradictory.”  They could, in fact, point to the same goal.  “The Great Army of the Sick” refers to Whitman’s explicit, publicly asserted distaste for African Americans, as revealed in an excerpt Morris reprints from an 1858 Brooklyn Daily Eagle editorial.  “‘Who believes that Whites and Blacks can ever amalgamate in America?” Whitman asks.  “Or wishes it to happen?  Nature has set an impassable seal against it.  Besides, is not America for the Whites?  And is it not better so?” (Morris 80).  When we think of Whitman calling for a consolidated national identity, we must consider how his abstractly limitless sense of “American” inclusion aims at eradicating one dichotomy, North/South, while permitting another, black/white, to proceed unchecked.  

    Morris pointedly reminds us of these priorities, stating that Whitman “despised equally the abolitionists and the proslavery hotheads of the South whom he blamed—not without cause—for the fracture of the Union” (81).  That antipathy for abolitionism, as Morris suggests, closely corresponds to Whitman’s insistence that African Americans were inferior beings, that “I should not like to see a n****r in the saddle—it seems unnatural” (80).  Not in the saddle, and certainly not down his open road.  He reveals this outlook rather plainly in “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” from “Drum-Taps,” describing a “dusky woman” as “so ancient hardly human.”  That conception of the woman’s inhumanity couples appropriately with the speaker’s inability to understand her, his wondering “What is it fateful woman, so blear, hardly human? / Why wag your head with turban bound, yellow, red and green? / Are the things so strange of marvelous you see or have seen?” (451-52).  The exotic, multicolored “turban” and the woman’s strangely animal tendency to “wag [her] head” combine to impress on us Whitman’s feeling that this woman, named simply “Ethiopia” in the title, was certainly not eligible for membership in his vast America.

    Elsewhere in “Drum-Taps,” Whitman calls out to that America in terms that reveal how he conceives of the entire nation racially.  For example, “Race of Veterans”:


    Race of veterans—race of victors!

    Race of the soil, ready for conflict—race of the conquering march!

    (No more credulity’s race, abiding-temper’d race,)

    Race henceforth owning no law but the law of itself,

    Race of passion and the storm.  (452)


    Just as in the “Leaves of Grass (part 4)” passage I held up alongside Wright, Whitman’s speaker here assumes that his listeners enjoy the privilege of self-possession, that they are a “race henceforth owning no law but the law of itself.”  However, when examined in light of Whitman’s external assertion that “Whites and Blacks” can and should never truly “amalgamate” in America, this apostrophe does not seem to address a figurative “race” made up of all the variegated inhabitants of America, but a more literal “race” made up of those whites who participated as a people in the Civil War’s slaughter.  (Anyone’s guess what he made of the thousands of African Americans enlisted in and fighting for both armies.) 

    The fact that Whitman’s speaker here calls out specifically to Union veterans, and not to the nation at large, does not limit his “race of victors” to that category, since his wide-scale enjoinders to a listening America begin similarly by invoking the country’s soldiers.  In “Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice,” the speaker asserts that “Sons of the Mother of All, you shall yet be victorious / …If need be a thousand shall sternly immolate themselves for one.”  These “Sons” consist of Missourians, Carolinians, Floridians, etc., all “comrades” whose bond yields “The continuance of Equality” (449).  As a group, they begin in the same frame of reference, the “victorious” war, as the “race of veterans—race of victors.”  But by expanding that outlook to include all the states of the Union, and to characterize the men’s relationship as a stronghold of Equality, Whitman represents the entire national “race” within that group of war veterans.

                Would he have conceived of that nation as anything other than a white one?  His discussion in “Over the Carnage” of the process by which each state will join together in a single dominion of “Equality” clangs with obvious dissonance against his belief that “Nature has set an impassable seal against… Whites and Blacks… amalgamat[ing] in America.”  In this particular racial context, his hope that the country can come together as a single people means precisely that—and nothing more.

    Oct 04 2009

    Sam P. for Oct. 6

    Filed under: Uncategorized

                If Whitman’s 1850s poems (even in their final “Deathbed” form) are characterized by a prevailing inclusiveness, an impulse to fold many voices and outlooks into a celebration of “the procreant urge of the world” (28), his post-Civil War Drum-Taps signifies instead an overriding drive to weed out irrelevancies in the name of war, and a concomitant mutation of that “procreant urge” into an embrace of America’s ineluctable bloodthirstiness.  In his persona’s most strident exhortations to take up the rifle and meet the enemy, Whitman deliberately excludes whatever he finds domestic, feminine or weak from the battle cry, paradoxically separating a war that concerns the fate of the entire nation into its own sphere of experience, unreachable to those outside it.  When read in a shared context with earlier works like “Song of Myself,” the Drum-Taps poems reveal an ironic undercurrent by which Whitman argues that, despite the sexy robustness of armies full of sweaty young men, the war’s need to shut out particular realms of American life, to figuratively amputate non-fighting limbs from the national body, makes it a grotesquely unhealthy affair.

                Whitman most often casts this separation in terms of silencing or ignoring those societal elements that most distract from the thrill of uniting to fight and kill.  Near the end of “Beat! Beat! Drums!” the speaker advises the reader to “Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer, / Mind not the old man beseeching the young man, / Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties” (420).  The experience of war, and the swath of Americans privy to it, thus drastically narrows from Whitman’s earlier avowal in “Song of the Open Road” that “Desperate, proud, fond, sick, accepted by men, rejected by men, / They go! they go! I know that they go, but I know not where they go, / But I know that they go toward the best—toward something great” (306).  Gone from Drum-Taps, then, is the sense that America might be marching toward that “something great” from down “the open road, / Healthy, free, the world before” it (297).  Instead, the country’s young men lurch headlong into something terrible and inescapable, sweeping from view the noncombatants that remind them of the broader world they no longer occupy.

                The poem “To a Certain Civilian” dramatizes this divide even more explicitly, and in terms that deepen the impossibility of understanding Drum-Taps on the same ground as Whitman’s prewar poetry.  In “Civilian,” Whitman insists that he belongs on the soldiers’ side of the American cultural breakage, that “I was not singing erewhile for you to follow, to understand—nor am I now; / I have been born of the same that the war was born, / The drum-corps’ rattle is ever to me sweet music” (455).  By defining the soldiers’ experience as isolated from the “timidity” and softness of mothers and children, and then defiantly taking his place alongside those soldiers, postwar Whitman no longer presumes to see widely enough to assure his reader of “the perfect fitness and equanimity of things” (29).  His poetry, as a document of the damage wrought by war, must reveal the degree to which that “equanimity” has shaken loose, even at the cost of alienating him from the sublime interconnectivity that otherwise pervades his work.

    Sep 27 2009

    Sam P. for Sept. 29

    Filed under: Uncategorized

                    I have coined a corny but Groom-appeasingly tech-ish acronym to encapsulate our prevailing interest in adapting Whitman to a modern context:

                     WWWDOT.  (What Would Whitman Do… Today?  Huzzah!  Of course, to describe the process by which we figure out Whitman’s compatibility with digital communication, we can use the clever little acronym WWWDOTCOM, or “What Would Whitman Do to a Computer?”  There’s also a little innuendo in that one that rightly brings Whitman’s playful flesh-mongering back into the conversation.)

                    More specifically, since this is the post immediately preceding the Mary Wash Whitmans’ trip to the Fredericksburg battlefield, I find myself drawn into the speculating on Whitman’s probable relationship to battlefield preservation.  How does the notion of cordoning off and essentially memorializing a piece of ground interact with Whitman’s sense of the total fluidity of every physical object, his assumption, as articulated from the first edition of Leaves of Grass, that any molecule making up a particular object might soon make up any other, that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (27)?  Would Whitman be on the side of battlefield preservation, or shrug at its futility?

                In his introduction to Memoranda During the War, Whitman affirms that “Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the few great battles) of the Secession War; and it is best they should not” (5).  Not only does he defy the hope that a historical (geographical, demographic, whatever etc.) stranger to the war—that is, one who was never “the actual soldier of 1862-‘65” (5)—might ever understand that war’s experiences, he also identifies “the few great battles,” and thus the fields on which they were fought, as the exact spots at which the non-soldier might superficially taste the war and presume to understand a little of it.  In this sense, Whitman anticipates the “battlefield tour” as a vehicle for shallow “re-living,” if the tourists believe they can come away with any semblance of the field’s erstwhile trauma.

                   Whitman further underscores his conviction that the American Civil War passes all understanding by linking that cosmic bafflement with a trope that decidedly refuses the idea of battlefield-as-stable-monument: quicksand.  Betsy Erkkila places particular emphasis on the poem “Quicksand Years That Whirl Me I Know Not Whither” as an illustration of the degree to which the war had destabilized Whitman’s broad sense of oneness with the world beyond the solitary Self.  This is the version of the poem published in the 1867 Leaves:

     “QUICKSAND years that whirl me I know not whither,

    Your schemes, politics, fail—lines give way—substances mock and elude me;

    Only the theme I sing, the great and strong-possess’d soul, eludes not;

    One’s-self, must never give way—that is the final substance—that out of all is sure;

    Out of politics, triumphs, battles, death—what at last finally remains?

    When shows break up, what but One’s-Self is sure?” (31a)

     Whitman here transmutes his sublime conception of the constant, benign flux and fluidity of nature into the feeling that “substances mock and elude me,” and reveals the extent to which the grand interconnectedness of “One’s-Self” with “the word EN-MASSE” (6) had broken down in the maddening cycle of “politics, triumphs, battles, deaths” that characterize the “quicksand years” of 1861-65.  The sucking, all-devouring slippage of a pit of quicksand provides a convenient topographical illustration of Whitman’s consternation in the Memoranda at the thought of “how much, and of importance, will be—how much, civic and military, has already been—buried in the grave, the eternal darkness!” (6).  If the physical world perpetually shifts and changes, and time acts like soil that swallows the memories that walk over it, then Whitman’s logical conclusion might be total resignation at that wartime transience and loss, and an absolute refusal of the impulse to preserve (stories, fields, etc.), when what he preserves will not change the fact that the full story of a even a single combatant “will never be written—perhaps must not and should not be” (5). 

    Still, we know how Whitman gets with impossible tasks.  Having established in the Memoranda introduction that the infinitely detailed “black infernal background” of the war can never be fully shown, he assays “a few stray glimpses into… that many-threaded drama” (6).  Even if the war’s battlefields only contain a shred of their “original” soil and stone, and just as little of their wartime appearance, Whitman suggests that it is not up to him or any other non-veteran to deny those scraps their grim significance.  The trope of “quicksand years” here augments the urgent need to salvage whatever small memories might remain, and so reveals Whitman’s probable conviction that, despite the reality of a field slipping away with the rain or getting covered up by houses (even Dr. Scanlon’s, man!), we have to take whatever “stray glimpses” of that field we can get.  We just can’t delude ourselves into thinking we’ll get any more.  And so, on to the visitor’s center. 

    By the way, WWWDOTCOM is a registered 2009 trademark of Sam Protich, Esq.